Starring Renée Zellweger. Rated PG
"I'll go my way by myself/Here's how the comedy ends/I'll have to deny myself/Love and laughter and friends."
Those are key lyrics from "By Myself", a signature tune delivered by Judy Garland in 1963’s I Could Go On Singing, and echoed as an anthem of defiance in Judy, a so-so biopic with a knockout performance by Renée Zellweger.
The movie is itself a kind of comeback for the Oscar winner, after her early-2000s heyday, which included an unexpected turn in the musical Chicago. Here she plays the Hollywood icon in her final year, awash in booze, pills, and self-pity while making one last grab at the brass rainbow.
At 47, Garland is fighting for custody of her still-small children with agent and ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) when she gets an offer from a big London theatre. Most viewers will see this aware that she died six months later, from a barbiturate overdose, so we know it’s not going to go entirely well. But the high-wire act she performed since childhood always gave her persona a kind of manic juice. People who bought tickets to her U.K. stand never knew if they were going to get triumphantly reborn Judy or trainwreck Judy, and that makes it a strong nexus in which to boil down her whole career.
Unwisely, however, the film (directed by Rupert Goold with a script adapted by Brit-TV veteran from Peter Quilter’s musical stage play) “opens up” the story to include other landmarks of her life. There are numerous overly stylized flashbacks, with Darci Shaw (who looks nothing like either actress) as the teen star, force-fed diet pills—to deny herself—by a monstrous mother, and bullied by odious MGM head Louis B. Mayer, with intimations of sexual assault.
Mayer never let her forget she was born poor and unpretty Frances Gumm, and even after the success of Wizard of Oz (with its fanciful set a touchstone here), she struggled endlessly to pull her act together. This Piaf-like effortfulness was doubtless at the root of her popularity with gay audiences back when "Friends of Dorothy" was a popular euphemism. And that relationship is represented touchingly by an invented evening with a male couple who serve her a late-night supper.
This Judy also has a sketchy fling with fifth husband Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), and engages in a resentful pas de deux with her poised London assistant (the quietly scene-stealing Jessie Buckley). But mostly it’s a solo act for Zellweger, who does her own singing and dancing, catching hard glimmers of Garland’s voracious talent in its most shopworn state. She grasps the essence of a star who, so far from Kansas, desperately wants your love—but also doesn’t really care what you think.